Recently I was speaking with a young author friend of mine who posed this pertinent question that I think a lot of body positive activists actually struggle with: I've seen a lot of talk of embracing your curves, but often this rhetoric is paired with statements like exercise "manipulates your natural body." Where do we draw the line between acknowledging the public health crisis and obesity epidemic, and encouraging people to be comfortable in their own skin?
This was a tricky question for me to answer. While I did answer the question, I'm going to present a more succinct version of my thoughts here.
As someone trying her hardest to make even a tiny difference in the fitness industry's desire to sell sex appeal over health, my aim is to trumpet my message loud and clear that how exercise makes you feel is more important than how it makes you look. I don't want to train the person who comes to me wanting a bikini body. I want to train the person who knows lack of exercise is contributing to her high cholesterol or whose weight gain is causing excessive strain on his knees or the person who knows exercise could give her more energy or even the person who knows that his struggles with weight will cause issues later down the line. Those are the people I want. And I want these people to then spread the message that exercise has made a difference in their lives because it makes them feel better!
It's absolutely an uphill battle. After all, I have seen what trainers and gyms promote, and it's more often sex appeal than anything else. Unfortunately, promoting a gym as a way to regain your health is a less appealing sale than promoting a gym as a way to shed fat and get ripped abs. Yet, if we keep continuing this cycle of "sex sells" within the fitness industry, we'll never see an improvement over how we should approach health.
This is where the Health At Every Size movement comes in. According to the 5th edition of the American Council on Exercise Personal Trainer Manual, "two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese" (2014). Yet, despite this sobering statistic, we are not seeing a decrease in the obesity epidemic. Thus, HAES aims to promote a shift in focus to weight-neutral outcomes so that health is not being associated with weight loss. In fact, "randomized controlled clinical trials indicate a HAES approach is associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in physiological measures (e.g., blood pressure and blood lipids), health behaviors (e.g. eating and activity habits and dietary quality), and psychological outcomes (e.g., self-esteem and body image), and HAES achieves these health outcomes more successfully than weight-loss treatment and without the contraindications associated with a weight focus" (2014). We then need to put an overall focus on improving health behaviors, such as eating better and getting more physical activity in most days of the week.
Yet, it is going to take an entire industry shift to change people's views on weight loss. Many people assume that those who struggle with their weight are either lazy, lack motivation, or just don't care. It is rarely this simple. If so, I don't believe we'd have the obesity epidemic we have now if all it took was a sprinkle of motivation. Not to mention there are plenty of clinically obese people working hard at my gym. Rather, there are a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that affect people's abilities to both gain and lose weight. And we also have to admit that most people who struggle with weight do so because they're consuming more than they're burning. Very few people struggle with weight as a result of a condition or even a medication. This is why HAES is so important. HAES recognizes the myriad of factors surrounding someone's desire or lack thereof to lose weight. After all, self-loathing is not conducive for weight loss. These people may lack motivation because they have no one to support them. They may have the motivation, but they are unsure of where to start or even intimidated by the gym. Even eating healthy these days is not simple since there is so much conflicting information out there, the quality information often being drowned out by misinformation.
There is a certain amount of tough love that must be implemented, however. Whether we like to admit it or not, the way we feel about ourselves, about our appearances, is inextricably linked with who we are. We all want to feel good about ourselves. We all want to look in the mirror and believe we look fantastic. What we often don't want to admit, however, is when we have a problem. This holds true for myself when I was in denial about how grossly thin I was getting when I was in the throes of my eating disorder. It took realizing that I'd never be satisfied with my weight to understand the gravity of my situation.
There are people out there who are in denial about their weight issues and only seem to do anything about it when it is arguably too late. In my experience, most people who seek personal trainers to lose weight do so because their weight is causing them health problems that could have been prevented had they understood they had a problem to begin with. Healthy results in a doctor's office do not mean that problems will not eventually arise within people who are obese. We needn't ignore the litany of scientific research with copious amounts of findings about what obesity causes.
Of course, I recognize that whenever the issue of obesity is brought up online, especially as it relates to body image, you have people spouting off scientific evidence that masquerades as concern for the obese person's health. Take Tess Holliday, for example. Body positive activists shower her with admiration over her ability to love herself, while critics couch their criticism with concern for her health. The body positive activists then lash back with information that Holliday claims she received a clean bill of health from her doctor. The critics then fight back by claiming her weight will eventually cause her problems.
It is this tug-of-war that keeps us from having a sincere discussion about obesity. And we desperately need to have one. We need to be able to recognize that obesity does indeed cause problems without being considered body shamers. We also need to realize that you have to be able to first love yourself before any changes can be made in your life. To truly love yourself also means recognizing that how you treat yourself today will impact who you are and how you are in the future.
Obesity is such a sensitive issue because it is a condition tied in with our appearances. It is also a sensitive issue due to the public's perception that obese individuals are slovenly. People want simple answers for why other people behave the way they do. Even so, we need to be willing to understand that when it comes to something as complex as obesity, the "why" will never, ever be simple. Instead of immediately judging obese individuals and trying to answer the "why" for them, we need to take the time to understand just how complex of an issue this is. Then I think we can have a civil discussion about obesity and body image.
ACE Certified Personal Trainer, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, nutrition coach, young adult author, moody ballerina.
I help people perform without pain.
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The views expressed on this blog are entirely my own. Any advice I offer is not to be taken as medical advice. If you think you have contraindications to exercise, please see your physician before implementing any sample workout plans I present on this blog.
All images are either my own, from Canva, or Creative Commons